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By John Helmer, Moscow

The big difference between the penny dreadful and the novels of the great crime writers is not the characters who wind up dead, nor who did it to them, nor how; but rather what truth the tale reveals about the society in which the crime takes place and the humankind responsible for the dirty deeds.

Originally, in the mid-19th century, the penny dreadful was a type of mass-market syndication of stories that would cost their readers only a penny to read in weekly serializations. That was at the time in England when Charles Dickens’s value-added serializations cost one shilling, twelve times the price. The lower the cover, the simpler the tale, the cheaper the paper, and the more lurid the details. In other words, maximum sex and violence, minimum sociology, politics, and moral philosophy.

Still alive and kicking, Martin Cruz Smith has claims to a market share at the Dickens end of the scale. An American of Amerindian and Hispanic extraction, his only apparent contact with Russia has been thirty years of research visits collecting details for crime locations, police methods, and the modus operandi of all sorts of bad people. His first setting of his Russian stories was called Gorky Park. In 1981, that was exceptional for the apparent veracity of its depiction of the casebook of a detective attached to the office of the Moscow prosecutor. Noone (American) had tried hardboiled fiction in the USSR before. It was a best-seller.

That detective, by the name of Arkady Renko, is still the central figure of the latest tale Cruz Smith has published. Titled Three Stations, its US edition appeared last year; the UK edition this year. The New York Times engaged to review it an American whose only experience of Europe appears to have been a Fulbright scholarship to Romania, and a current residence in Hungary. No experience of Russia is apparently what you need to believe the latest novel to be what the New York Times calls “social criticism, which great crime fiction has always done well. Like the luminaries of the genre, Smith is at heart a deeply moral writer, and beneath his wry, cynical tone you can feel his authorial anger twitching a safe distance away. Paired with what reads deceptively like a native’s knowledge of Russia, it makes for a potent brew.”

So what does Cruz Smith claim his painstaking research in Moscow has dug up about modern oligarch business and crime to top that chestnut of Balzac’s: “The secret of great fortunes without apparent accounting is a crime that has not been found out because it was properly executed.” Or Balzac’s less familiar observation about the Yukos business of his day: “to kill a relative of whom you are tired, is something; but to inherit his property afterwards — that is a real pleasure!”

Strange to discern, at the last of 277 pages, the precise answer isn’t clear. In the main plot line with which the book opens, a young woman on the run has had her just-born infant stolen from her as she takes an overnight train into Moscow. Searching for the baby triggers the second plot-line, in which the young woman turns out to be a sex slave escaping from two murderous enforcers. That takes the reader into the brothel and baby-selling businesses. This time, though, there’s no semi-homicidal American couple on the buying end, which has been the regrettable reality of the newspapers recently – it’s a Russian Army general trying to silence the nagging from his infertile wife.

A third plot line involves a serial murderer who hunts down young ballet dancers and after despatching them, removes the bottom half of their clothes and arranges their legs and toes in one of the five classic ballet positions. His mother is on his act. There’s also a dwarf who does contract killing for a living, and between hits, hires himself out dressed up as one of the Seven Dwarves (Disney-version Dopey).

The love interest appears in the fourth plot line involving a young chess hustler who makes his money luring other chess-players into false confidence and betting on checkmates at $100 a shot.

Along the way, the sub-plot exposes vicious professional rivalries at the prosecutor’s office, not to mention manipulation for bribes of the post-mortem records at the morgue and the city coroner’s office. None of this is especially or even characteristically Russian. Had Cruz Smith opted to stay at home at San Rafael, California, and make it the locale of this story, he’d have real competition – Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald for starters. Would readers be surprised and want to peep into this stuff if told it was happening on the north side of the Golden Gate bridge? Doubtful.

So what makes this Russian is Cruz Smith’s attempt to tie his plot lines together, and put them in the hands of a purported oligarch with the Jewish name, Alexander (Sasha) Vaksberg. His line of business is Moscow casinos. His problem is that he is being put out of business, and his casinos closed down, for reasons Cruz Smith never manages to report, or his central character uncover.

So that Cruz Smith’s investigation isn’t lost for significance, he has Vaksberg tell the investigator that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is to blame for his business troubles. “All my casinos have been closed. Now, thanks to our judo master in the Kremlin, I’m just paying rent.” The investigator doesn’t demonstrate any curiosity about this statement, and since he fails to investigate it, readers are obliged to think it must be the truth. That’s when Cruz Smith rolls in another oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose story is depicted as a one-paragraph lesson in cruel and unjustified misfortune.

Vaksberg again, still lecturing the cop: “Fortune is a bubble unless the state accepts the rights of property. In an emerging nation – and Russia, believe me, is an emerging nation – that bubble can be easily popped. Who would want to do business in a land where rich men are poisoned or put in cages and shipped to Siberia? We thought we were the darlings of the Kremlin. Now we’re all on a little list.”

Putin gets one more mention, this time from another Moscow policeman crying in his cups over the failure of his sex life. “…we’re equally miserable. It’s become a national crisis. No romance, no little Russians, no army. That’s why Putin played Cupid…. He declared a Holiday of Love with bouquets for all the married women who came to Red Square. The weather was a little cool, a little cloudy. Putin wants everything perfect, so he salts the clouds.”

One of Cruz Smith’s sources was playing a wry joke on him this time. There are also plenty of factoid mistakes, especially if you don’t know Moscow’s roads and traffic conditions well enough to time the police car’s movements with accuracy. Factoids are facts that look convincing because of their specifity, even though they are false or misleading.

There’s this misnomer too, when the central character records that a newly rich Russian had “beat[en] a rival to death with a cricket bat.” Baseball bat maybe, ice-hockey stick more likely, but cricket bat? The only available stock of those is locked up in the fortress on Smolensky Embankment – that’s the British Embassy.

Embarrassing though it may be for Cruz Smith, there is a thriller to be written about the campaign for closure of the Moscow casinos, between 2006 and 2009, and who was behind it. If he had dared, Cruz Smith might have investigated the Ritzio Group, the leading Russia-based casino and gambling group controlled by Oleg Boyko. But there is nothing recognizable about the Boyko-Ritzio story in the Vaksberg character. If Cruz Smith had really dared, he might have pursued the casino plot line, not to the Kremlin, but to the office of the Moscow Mayor. In that story, the rough gambling racketeers might have turned out to be Georgian, not Russian. But Cruz Smith’s fiction turns out to be false, and the truth more thrilling than he can apparently imagine.

Time maybe for Cruz Smith to retire Renko the investigator, not because his rivals or targets fear his methodical honesty, but because he’s missed the plot.

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